The Virtual Workplace: Mixed Benefits

In today’s technology-driven world, staying home is the new commute to work. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trend toward remote working has irrevocably changed the landscape of the American workplace. While the new “at-home” workplace has distinct advantages both for employers and workers, there are downsides as well, some with troubling implications for worker security, and for the economy as a whole.

As early as the 1980s, employers in various sectors began experimenting with ways to offer workers a release from their cubicles in order to use resources more efficiently and increase worker satisfaction. Strategies included offering flexible scheduling, work sharing and “telecommuting” – allowing employees to perform a certain number of their work tasks from home for part of their workweek.

Fast forward to the late 1990s and beyond. Where telecommuting allowed regular employees to essentially perform their usual work tasks at home for at least one or two days a week, people still had to appear at the office for meetings and other kinds of tasks. But as technology made it possible to conduct meetings via conference calls, do trainings as webinars, and conduct business on the Internet, it became less and less necessary for employees to show up at the office at all.

Now, the virtual office, such as Jason Hartman employs primarily, makes it possible to have an entire staff of employees working together remotely from all corners of the globe. This change in workplace culture not only offers the old benefits of saving resources, it also gives workers freedom to work from home, mostly on their own schedule – a benefit that, according to a recent survey by the International Freelancer’s Academy, workers say they prize more than any other workplace perk. The costs of maintaining a complete office are in many cases virtually eliminated, with savings in energy, productivity and efficiency as well, since workers are only on the clock for their actual work tasks.

For workers, the benefits of flexible work go hand in hand with an entrepreneurial mind-set. As employer loyalty dwindles, workers with exceptional skills, especially in technology and the sciences, can work whenever and wherever they choose, moving from job to job and project to project rather than holding down a true job.

But while the virtual workplace in many industries has offered clear benefits for employers and, in many cases, for some employees as well, it hasn’t been so kind to others. As the International Freelancer’s Academy survey also indicates, more workers are being used as “independent contractors” than ever before – hired to do a job, or a short-term project with no benefits or career possibilities. Although this kind of arrangement always existed in the American workplace – think of consultants or temps – it’s now the norm in some sectors such as information technology and customer service.

What’s more, the trend toward remote work has fueled the practice of outsourcing – using cheaper labor in another country in order to cut costs. While outsourcing saves employers money, it deprives qualified workers at home of much needed jobs. With a pool of skilled workers available half a world away, there’s no incentive to create jobs locally.

Thanks to rapidly advancing communications technology, the virtual workplace has changed the face of American employment forever. Used wisely, remote work options benefit both workers and employers. But those same benefits can turn to disadvantages that cost jobs for qualified American workers.

The American Monetary Association

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